When a team is 1-13 in the first year of a new coaching regime, no question should be left unasked. Even if some seem like reaches, the following offseason should hold the mantra of “there are no dumb questions”.
The biggest point of scrutiny as the Cincinnati Bengals head to January re-evaluation mode is at the quarterback position. Even before this week’s contest, the team has to be looking at the glut of incoming college talent at the position—especially with their potential holding of a No. 1 overall pick.
Veteran quarterback Andy Dalton picked a heck of a time to play one of his worst games as a professional. Against the Patriots, Dalton threw four interceptions—all in the second half and one being a pick-six—directly leading to a 21-point loss on their home turf.
Meanwhile, up in New York, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow locked down the Heisman Trophy with record-setting votes. Even before this weekend, he has been the coveted commodity of most of the Bengals’ fan base.
It was yet another high-profile loss to a league powerhouse with Dalton under center. In the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, the Bengals have just one win, while they also have been traditionally handled by the likes of the Steelers, Texans and other annually-competitive franchises.
After the contest, Dalton’s cast of supporting players took accountability for many of the four picks. It was admirable, and adds fuel to the Dalton defenders—especially when one looks at who currently comprises said cast.
When Zac Taylor came to Cincinnati in a move to replace Marvin Lewis, it actually showed innovation from one of the league’s slower-moving franchises. It also pointed to the Brown family’s preference for high-flying offenses featuring exciting skill position players.
Whether it was dictated, requested, or mutually agreed upon, Taylor went with Dalton as his starting quarterback in his inaugural campaign. Some believed that the system would bring out the best in No. 14 because of its reliance on the run game, play-action passing and its success in Los Angeles.
Instead, what has occurred is Dalton being on pace for career-lows (or near them) in many important statistical categories. And that’s saying something, considering some of the areas are lower than those in seasons cut short from injury.
What if it’s more of a matter of the system asking more of Dalton and Ryan Finley than what they are capable? Facets of the offense ask the quarterback to do a number of things that aren’t necessary strengths of either guy who has started under center this year.
The scheme and what’s needed
The scheme is predicated on making big plays off of play-action. A quarterback needs to possess a few traits to be lethal in this type of attack.
One such quality is patience and the ability to navigate in the pocket. While Dalton showed flashes of being able to make plays on the move and buy time in 2015 and 2018, he’s also displayed a panicky nature and has bailed out of potential big plays early many times this year.
An offshoot of this trait is the ability to remain calm and let plays develop. For big-play opportunities off of play-action, they are often calls with lengthy routes. employing a quarterback who can evade pressure, hang in to any semblance of a pocket and make a quality throw is a must.
Yes, Dalton was one of the more efficient statistical passers in the league off of play-action going into last week, but plays have been left on the field. And, with the recent uptick in the running game, one would think it should set the table for more productive quarterback play.
Another trait is the ability to push the ball down the field. While Dalton isn’t known for having an elite arm, it’s stronger than the layman would credit.
However, Dalton’s deep ball accuracy has been erratic in his nine years with the Bengals. Sometimes he is on point, while at others, Green has bailed him out, or he’s sailed them out of reach.
Producing big plays off of play-action, especially when it’s salable, is what Taylor coveted out of his offense this year. Yes, losing Green and John Ross for extended periods has hurt, but this needs to be a consistent aspect of the offense from the quarterback, despite injuries.
And, yes, the play-action has been able to be sold—at least since the Week 9 bye.
Even though Joe Mixon has rushed for two of the highest single-game totals of his career and has three 100-yard performances in the past six contests. Yet, the quarterbacks have been unable to net more than 22 points in a single game—in fact, the Bengals are averaging just 14.5 points scored per game since the bye.
Obviously, statistics like those and some very questionable play-calls by Taylor call that aspect into question. Compounding that argument is the amount of injuries on that side of the ball—most notably the season-long absence of A.J. Green.
And, in truth, the four-interception performance we saw from Dalton was a culmination of a deteriorating roster, coaching inexperience and an indictment of No. 14 himself.
Still, Sunday’s embarrassing loss at the hands of the Patriots was a stark reminder of what’s needed in Cincinnati. It may come off as piling on Dalton, but the harsh truth is that a franchise-changing guy under center is needed on this team that annually uses limited resources to build a winner.
Whether or not Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, or Justin Herbert are those guys remains to be seen, but, as more weeks pass, it appears as if the Dalton-Taylor marriage isn’t built to last.
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